Selected Courses on Digital Art-UOWM

13 Νοεμβρίου 2014

The connectivist turn.

Filed under: ΚΕΙΜΕΝΑ — admin @ 09:29

The connectivist turn.
Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace. Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness.

Author: Jan Baetens
Published: May 2004
Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace. Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Edited and with an essay by Edward A. Shanken
Berkeley, California University Press, 2003

If the definition of a good book is that one feels intellectually provoked during its reading, and leaves the volume with the certitude of being more intelligent than at the start, then Telematic Embrace is the book one might be looking for. And if one is not hesitant about the old seductions of style and, most of all, that impossible thing called the ‘personality’ of its author, this book provides even more than one could ask from a vast collection of essays in the problematic, because too overtly fashionable and therefore too easily outfashioned, field of theory on art and electronic culture. In the case of Ascott’s writings, those two elements–the visionary force of his thinking on the one hand and the personal qualities of his style on the other–may seem a little contradictory, since few authors have made such strong pleas in favour of “distributed authorship” and against the mirages of the traditional (romantic, ego-centered) art world, yet the very example of Telematic Embrace, which presents an extremely useful, highly representative and carefully edited anthology of Ascott’s scholarly work, proves one of the basic theses of the author, i.e. that the leap towards global connectiveness through cybernetics and telematics does not exclude the human factor or prevent man from liberating himself when abandoning the traditional domains of the humanities.
Most books and essays on the relationship between art, science, and technology, represent either a synthesis or a ‘snapshot’ of what their authors have been thinking or are thinking on the subject. In both cases, their writings are homogeneous: in the case of a book, the previous phases of reflection are integrated in a kind of global survey that camouflages internal contradictions and transforms previous hesitations and errors into stepping-stones on the long path leading to final insights; in the case of an essay, which normally gives just a cross-section of the author’s thinking on that specific point of time and place, the lack of a global framework is not always considered a flaw, and contradictions with later texts are part of the game (“This was what I was thinking in 1984, and this is what I am thinking now, and tomorrow I may appear to think something else…”). The exceptional merit of Roy Ascott’s work as a theoretician of the relationships between art, science, and technology, is that it in spite of their often shattered and overtly ‘visionary’ character, they are not just a succession of speculations in which new links replace or destroy the previous ones. Although they have not been rewritten for this publication, the texts gathered in Telematic Embrace span a period of more than three decades (1964-1993) and reveal indeed an exceptional coherence (and maybe even a kind of master narrative, yet this word may be too negatively connoted).
This coherence is not the result of the mere application of a pre-established, teleological programme or of a single, all-explaining and stubbornly adhered to theoretical paradigm. The coherence of Ascott’s thinking and writing develops almost spontaneously along some basic lines, which the author never renounces but which he always adopts following his own principles of feed-back and interactivity. If one had to summarize Ascott’s evolution, one might say that he gradually moved from cybernetics to telematics, and from telematics to an overall view of connectedness at both an electronic and at a biological level. In the late 50s and during the 60s, Ascott pioneered the interaction of art and the emerging science of cybernetics (defined as “the study of control and communication in living and artificial systems”, p. 331). He then realized, with the cyberneticians themselves, that such a study missed an essential point, namely the fact that the observer had to be considered part of the system studied. This brought him to second-order cybernetics, which recognized the blurring of boundaries between object and observer, while emphasizing even more the importance of feed-back and interactivity. With the revolution of telematics (the integration of computers and telecommunications), Ascott’s ideas evolved towards a what he calls “connectivism”, a paradigm in which the ancients spheres of mind, body, and world, or those of nature and culture, are no longer separable and in which universal interaction is celebrated as a new step in evolution (not only of man’s evolution, since there is no longer a clear-cut separation of man and non-man in the universe).
All of this sounds familiar and the name of McLuhan comes quickly to mind. The philosophical underpinnings of Ascott’s telematic embrace and McLuhan’s global village are not without analogy: the East and the West will meet, human conflicts will be overcome by ‘communication’, ancient hierarchies will be replaced by freedom and democracy, even love will be in the air. Ascott likes quoting (and connecting!), for instance, more or less like-minded people such as the 19-th French socialist thinker Fourier, the apologist of “universal attraction”, the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, the inventor of the “noosphere”, or J.E.Lovelock, the advocate of Gaia, not to speak of McLuhan himself, regularly mentioned with great sympathy. Yet there are also considerable differences, which undoubtedly play in favour of Ascott. Ascott’s visionary thinking is always deeply rooted in concrete, professional contexts: his many appointments (academic, advisory, and editorial) all over the world have insured that he has always been in very close contact with the wishes and the needs of students, artists, researchers, and the interested audience. This field experience is crucial: it is the perfect counterweight to intellectual freewheeling and gratuitous speculation (what Ascott is discussing is always both visionary and down to earth: in the same essay, for instance, he can demonstrate the necessity to establish ‘post-institutional’ ways of working and giving all possible details on the equipment of each single room of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz). It is also the warrant of a real interdisciplinary approach (Ascott’s understanding of contemporary science, for instance, is a real understanding, and not that of a dilettante (?)). Moreover, Ascott’s work has always been at the service of the intellectual needs of the field. The selection of his essays in Telematic Embrace gives full and clear evidence of this attitude of deep concern with the didactics of contemporary art (of course, since ‘everything is connected’, these didactics are never bookish). Almost all important issues which are at stake in the twentieth-century reflection on art, are represented here: the role and place of a museum, the relationship between art object and audience, the integration of art and society, etc.
Ascott’s place in the philosophy of art (I know this label is erroneous, but nevertheless it helps to stress the importance of this work) is paradoxical. Ascott is antimodern, since he rejects absolutely the ideology of the purity of art and the celebration of its objects, and in this respect his visionary thinking can be linked with post-structuralism (one is not surprised to see that in the recent texts by Ascott the name of Deleuze starts appearing). Yet at the same time, his clear belief in some Grand Narrative makes him a antipostmodernist (many essays, even in the years when postmodernism was still a positive value, are very critical of its incapacity to tackle the new and to exceed the parodying relationship with the past). The very long introductory essay by Edward A. Shanken, who did a wonderful job as an editor (the very fact that the editing goes almost unseen is the best compliment one can address to an editor!), provides the reader with a very profitable historical survey of the major tendencies in 20 th century art one has to know in order to fully understand what is at stake in Ascott’s work. It is at the same time a perfect introduction to this work itself, which it helps to interpret while giving the reader a strong impulse to deepen their own interpretations. Often, collected and introduced essays are broken up into two non-communicating parts: the new introduction and the older essays. In Telematic Embrace, the editor and the author manage to make love.

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